Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Transit 3

OK, the previous two posts on Transit (Transit 1 and Transit 2) were serious, now it's time to demean the discourse and have some fun looking at Margaret Wente's recent column in the Globe, "The war against the car will never succeed."

The first line actually made me realize something I should have realized a long time ago.

"The other day, as I drove to my exercise class (yes, yes, I know there's a contradiction there), people on the radio were telling me to take the TTC. There was a smog alert, and I was contributing to the problem."

What I realized is the source of Wente's endless stream of 'contrarian' articles - guilt. Specifically some friend of Wente's or (as in this case) someone on the radio will try to make Wente feel guilty about something. In order to expel the guilt, Wente writes a foolish column cherry picking the available information on the topic in order to convince herself there is nothing to feel guilty about. Of course, I have no idea what motivates her columns, but this thesis does seem to fit the facts.


Things start reasonably,
"In 1988, TTC ridership was 463 million, the second largest in North America. By last year, despite the Greater Toronto Area's explosive growth, ridership had shrunk to 410 million.

Transit advocates blame higher fares and service cutbacks for this decline. If only we invest more in improving public transit, more people will use it. To a limited extent, this may be true. But transit advocates ignore the overwhelming evidence from around the world: People still prefer their cars."

'To a limited extent this may be true?' Limited how much? And by what? How do we know it isn't true to an unlimited extent? And what on earth does the fact that people prefer their cars (as they did in 1988 as well, no doubt) have to do with the change in transit usage. Is there overwhelming evidence around the world that people's attitudes have changed since 1988? Or only in cities whose transit systems have been ridiculously starved for funds and haven't made any significant system improvements in decades?

"New statistics on commuting times reveal what everyone already knows: Public transit is a whole lot slower than driving. People who commute to work by car spend an average of 59 minutes on the road each day (round trip). Transit riders spend 106 minutes."

See my transit 1 post for more details (and a link!!) to the study Wente is referring to. The report actually suggests that controlling for other variables, taking transit takes an extra 41 minutes. So what does this mean, well it seems to suggest that the planners are right and Wente is wrong - it's not so much that people have an implicit preference for driving (although of course many do) it's just that service cutbacks mean that transit isn't effective enough for them.

"The Star says the answer is massive new investments from all levels of government so public transit can 'better compete against the unwholesome lure of the automobile.' My own trip to work takes less than 20 minutes by car, but an hour by TTC, much of it standing up. The unwholesome lure of the automobile is darned hard to resist."

Uh, isn't that the Star's point?

"Southern Ontario is the third-fastest growing region in North America - in the next 25 years, the population is projected to grow by a staggering four million people. So what's the plan for constructing new road systems and highways? Um, there isn't one. The province plans to re-engineer people's behaviour so they'll take public transit."

Wait a second, the province of Ontario has no plans for no improvements to the road network in Southern Ontario? That can't be right - phew, it isn't

"TORONTO, June 16 /CNW/ - The Ontario government is improving the quality
of life for Ontario families by launching its Southern Ontario Highways
Program (SOHP), a five-year, $3.4 billion highway construction program,
Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield announced today."

Back to Wente,
"As for Toronto, everyone agrees it should become more like Paris, where people live in higher-density apartment buildings instead of single-family houses, and walk everywhere to do their shopping. There's just one problem: Most Parisians don't live in central Paris any more. Three-quarters of them live in the suburbs, where they can find single-family houses, get around by - mon Dieu! - car and shop at - quelle horreur! -; supermarchés and big-box stores."

For those who've never been there, let me explain why most Parisians don't live in central Paris 'anymore' - central Paris is full (of Parisians). I recall being there in 1998, visiting a friend of a friend in her less than 500 sq. foot apartment, where you had to go out onto the roof to get to the washroom. The idea that central Paris has been left deserted because everyone left for the suburbs is laughable. At any rate, personally I'd say that Toronto might be better off to imitate Vancouver than look to Paris, a city where you are generally not allowed to build more than 6 stories high.

"The idea that people will use public transit to get to work ignores the fact that most people don't want to live near their work."

First of all, huh? If people don't live near work, they'll have to get there somehow, right, with transit being an option. Am I missing something here?

Second of all, most people don't want to live near their work? It could be just me, but I think if I went around and asked everybody I know whether they'd like their commute to be shorter or longer, there'd be a pretty heavy preponderance on the 'shorter' side. Seriously, who ever said, "I wish my trip to work wasn't so short".

"According to one study, 20 per cent of all trips by auto are for work, 20 per cent for shopping, and 60 per cent for things that are 'social.'” The idea that public transit can replace the car in people's busy lives is a fantasy."

I knew I was living in a fantasy world...

"As for lower-income people - supposedly the main beneficiaries of public transit - they have an alternative, too. It's called used cars."

And they can pull up to the drive through in their used cars and order cake for lunch...

I love that 'supposedly'. I mean, maybe Wente has never been on transit but she should try it. Low income people really *are* (proportionally) the main beneficiaries! But next time I see some low income people on the bus I'll tell them to go buy a used car (and get out of my seat).

"And yet, nowhere in all the hype about the province's new growth plan is there a mention of the words 'roads' or 'highways.'; This omission reminds me of the Duke of Wellington's comment about railways, whose construction he opposed because they 'only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.'"

And yet the government is obviously planning billions of dollars in road and highway expansion so maybe that just wasn't the focus of this particular government plan (governments tend to produce a lot of plans)...

"Public transit systems are certainly no bargain. 'Transit subsidies are hugely greater than any subsidies to the automobile,' says Peter Gordon, a California professor of planning and economics."

Well if Peter Gordon says so, then case closed. Who is Peter Gordon?

"Reason: How are you perceived in the planning community? Are you on the fringe?

Gordon: I'm at the edge of the fringe."

OK then. And what about, 'Transit subsidies are greater than automobile susbsidies?' Actually, what Gordon says is, ""Whether you [do] it per mile or per trip, transit subsidies are hugely greater than any subsidies to the automobile. Per passenger mile, transit subsidies are 50 times what auto subsidies are."

Oh, per mile, that is a bit different than the unqualified statement in Wente's article. It's also a bit of a deceptive argument. Government pays to build the entire road network, enforces planning rules to ensure that all new businesses have adequate parking and generally takes any number of measures to ensure that all development is compatible with the automobile while doing little to nothing to develop any legitimate alternatives to the automobile.

So government has created a situation where the automobile has a monopoly on travel for most people - and government, being government, naturally sees this monopoly as a chance to slap big taxes on gas (governments like taxing monopolies and addictions like tobacco and alcohol because people aren't very price sensitive in these situations so high taxes don't scare them off). And then you can argue that because gas taxes are so high, the government doesn't have big subsidies for the automobile.

This argument is a bit like arguing that because Bill Gates made so much money, Windows must be the best operating system.

Also, one wonders whether the analysis has factored in the health costs and the environmental costs into the equation.

But while we're on the topic of Peter Gordon, here are a couple of other things he says in the interview I linked to:

"The transportation mode of choice of low-income people is used cars."


"We know that 20 percent of all trips by automobile are for work, 20 percent are for shopping, and 60 percent are for things I would call social."


"People don't have to live near work."

And the title to the interview: "Urban planning skeptic Peter Gordon on the benefits of sprawl, the war against cars" (emphasis added)

Any of that sound familiar? We've been down this road before.

Oh and another thing from that article:

"Reason: You've shown that the average-duration commute has stayed the same over the past 15 years or so. Why does everyone believe that traffic congestion is getting worse?"

Well to be fair, that interview was in 1988. One wonders if Gordon has changed his tune on that one (or maybe it is only in Canada that commute times are rising over the last 15 years - except in Vancouver, the city which has done the opposite of everything Gordon seems to recommend?)

OK, where was I?

"'Most new autos generate little or no more pollution per passenger vehicle mile than the average bus,' says Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History. He argues it would require a massive increase in the use of public transportation and improvements in transit vehicles to bring about any meaningful reduction in energy use or pollution."

Uh, why are we comparing new cars to average buses? Shouldn't we compare new cars to new buses, or the average car to average buses? (or maybe we should compare used cars to buses?)

Anyway, that statement seems a little implausible. This study from the Bay Area suggests that emissions are roughly cut in half when people take the bus.

And of course, more people on transit generally means less congestion which lowers the emissions for all vehicles making a trip. Nor does it factor in the environmental savings if people don't buy a car at all because they can use transit.

Nor does it consider the impact of things like streetcars, Vancouver's electric bus fleet, light rail, subways or commuter trains.

I think this paragraph from "Transport Energy Use and Greenhouse Gases in Urban Passenger Transport Systems: A Study of 84 Global Cities" sums it up well,

"Energy consumed per passenger km in public transport in all cities is between one-fifth and one-third that of private transport, the only exception being in the US cities where large buses dominate public transport and attempt to pick up passengers in suburbs designed principally around the car. In US cities, public transport energy use per passenger kilometre stands at 65% that of cars.

Examining the overall energy efficiency of motorised transport in the world's cities (private and public transport combined), we find that the Canadian cities are the least efficient at 3.5 MJ per passenger km. This is followed closely by US cities at 3.2 MJ per passenger km.

These results reflect the large private vehicles in use in North America, especially 4WD sports utility vehicles (SUVs), their low use of motor cycles and their high levels of private versus public mobility. The private vehicles in US and Canadian cities consume about 5 MJ/km, whereas most other regions are under 4 or even 3 MJ/km, despite generally worse levels of congestion in these latter areas."

Back to Wente,
"Mr. Bruegmann's comments about urban planners' war against sprawl are an apt description of the mindset behind Ontario's new master plan. 'Very few people believe that they themselves live in sprawl. Sprawl is where other people live, particularly people with less taste and good sense than themselves. Much anti-sprawl activism is based on a desire to reform these other people's lives.'"

An ad hominem attack against planners isn't an argument.

Here is my favourite part in the whole Wente article:

"If we really wanted to tackle smog and congestion, we wouldn't be fantasizing about massive new investments in public transit. We'd be investing in transportation infrastructure, less polluting fuels, more intelligent roads and vehicles with sensors to control traffic flows, peak-time user fees and more flexible forms of public and private transport, such as group taxis."

'If we really wanted'
Because we don't really want to, you see, we just want to mess with people's lives and give people guilt trips - people in Toronto don't care that they can't see the sky, it's all just a big game.

I like how making investments in public transit, which has been done effectively in many places around the world, is a 'fantasy'. Instead we should be investing in 'more intelligent roads' (I hate stupid roads, don't you?), and 'vehicles with sensors to control traffic flows' - because that is a realistic plan - none of that pie in the sky nonsense involving modes of transportation that have been operating for near a century...

Also, I'm not sure I understand the part about how investment in transit is 'a fantasy' and instead we should invest in 'transportation infrastructure'.

The stuff about less polluting fuels and user fees and allowing more competition in transit all makes sense but it doesn't really contradict making investments in transit. Given the political realities, some of these items may be more fantasy than investments in transit. I recall the Harris government's promise to allow competition in inter-city bus travel that quickly fell by the wayside once Greyhound hired one of Harris' advisors to lobby for them.

"But you won't find the planners talking about these things because, to do so, they would have to concede defeat to the unwholesome lure of the automobile - to say nothing of the overwhelming preference of the public. And that would be very, very wicked."

Yeah, I'm sure planners are against more efficient fuels because they don't want to concede defeat to the automobile. That makes a lot of sense - in crazyland maybe. Sheesh.

So, you see how this works:
1) Someone makes Wente feel guilty about something and, rather than question her own behavior...
2) Wente goes and tracks down somebody with some contrarian views on the topic which conveniently state that what she happens to be currently doing and wants to continue doing is actually the best course of action and then...
3) Readers of the Globe and Mail get another article with cherry picked (and occasionally unattributed, it seems) and unopposed comments from our contrarian of the day, complete with some snarky comments about the base motivations of those who dared to make her feel guilty in the first place.

When the topic was Global Warming, Wente turned to error-prone contrarian Ross McKitrick
When the topic was the effects of global warming on polar bears, Wente turned to error-prone contrarian columnist John Tierney.

And now we know that when the topic is public transportation, we'll be hearing from Peter 'edge of the fringe' Gordon.

Someday, when Wente retires, somebody should total up how many one-sided 'contrarian' columns she wrote just so she could drive her SUV without feeling bad.


  • I hate that woman a little more every time I read something of hers. But you just made me cheer out loud.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 8:57 PM  

  • It appears that Peggy Wente has to write a column about taking her joys of taking the car to work every summer as she wrote a similar themed column last August.

    The article includes this lovely generalization:

    It's no accident that bus and subway riders are mostly young and poor. They take public transit not because it's the better way, but because they can't afford to drive. The moment they get a little older and a little better off, they move to the suburbs and buy a car. The only cities where the middle-aged middle classes resort to public transit (London, New York) are places where driving and parking in the city core are nearly impossible.

    If Wente ever took public transit on a regular basis she'd know just how false that generalization that only the poor and young take public transit. Thousands of people take the GO Transit trains in everyday from the suburbs of Toronto and most of those people I'd say are far from poor. Even on the subway in the morning going to work in downtown Toronto. Lots of middle-aged/middle-class people ride the subway to get to work. There's usually a congestion on the subway at those downtown stations in the mornings and evenings during rush hour. I know quite a few traders at the bank I work at that come in on the subway. I'd hardly call them poor or young.

    I might as well keep going. The article from last year, also has this brilliant argument:

    Last week, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper proposed tax breaks for transit users. His idea was loudly ridiculed by the experts, who scoffed that nobody is about to switch to public transit for a lousy 60 cents a day. According to them, the answer is to offer better service -- more routes, with nicer buses that run on time.

    The truth is that the experts are wrong, too. You can make the buses free, furnish them with velvet seats and widescreen TVs and run them every five minutes, and people will still drive. I know. I live right near the streetcar, which zips across town and lets me off four blocks from where I work. It doesn't get much better than that. How often do I take the streetcar? Every time my car is getting fixed.

    Yes, of course, you could make tranist free and people would still drive their cars but that's not an argument not to fund public transit.

    Sometimes, I enjoy her columns but other times, I shake my head....

    By Blogger Bailey, at 11:32 AM  

  • Why do I avoid taking public transit here?

    1. Buses: too hot in summer, too cold in winter. (Metro is usually just fine.)
    2. Times: buses run very irregularly, often missing one of the scheduled stops, etc. (Again, not a problem with the metro, but:)
    3. Times-2: metro closes at 1 in the morning, preventing me from getting home after going out.
    4. Ick factor: stop groping me.
    5. Price: at 2$ a ride, as well as twice the time, I'd better be going somewhere I really can't park. (Add in costs of my time, too.)

    IOW, I always walk/bus/metro downtown, but rarely anywhere else. I used to never do it, but there used to be real night buses instead of a dozen inconvenient lines, etc.

    Public transit is the better way, in theory -- but it needs to be made way more convenient in practice. Sure, I'd love a tax break for a bus pass, but what I -- and most people I know -- really want is *more convenience*, especially with the overnight stuff.

    By Blogger wolfa, at 5:01 PM  

  • If only Wente had to answer to such criticism. Not to mention answer for her apparent habit of not attributing her sources the proper credit. I don't suppose you've sent an email or letter to the Globe about this?

    Anyway, great job Declan. I know that for someone of your intellectual caliber this is akin to using an entire can of Raid on a mosquito; however you are performing a valuable service. Wente's 'contrarian' arguments often sound plausible and harmlessly irreverent on the surface, but thankfully you’ve peeled off her mask to reveal her for what she is: loyal defender of the rich and powerful over the poor and weak.

    By Blogger Simon, at 7:03 PM  

  • Did you notice the part where Wente mentions that it takes her 20 minutes to drive to work? She doesn't consider that relatively close?

    Great rebuttal, though, and I completely agree about Wente's apparent motivations. Maybe one day she'll do some real investigation of an issue, but I'm afraid I might be waiting a long time (certainly longer than I've ever waited for a TTC bus...).

    By Blogger Josh Gould, at 11:55 AM  

  • Thank you for the laugh! I needed it cause I'm still recovering from my ride in the sweatcar, aka streetcar, then learning that same day that the reason why the driver looked comatose and us passengers were almost prostrate from the heat was that the government (who obviously never use their free transit passes to use the streetcar) years ago decided not to fix the AC units as they, one by one, died on the streetcars.

    It was on the news because with much fanfare they announced that one - ONE! -- streetcar had received a mobile AC unit as a pilot project to see what people thought of it. Oh, that's a tough one.

    It really warmed this Toronto transit rider's heart to read your fabulous picking apart of Wente's facile argurments, to see a BC'er stand up for us poor low-income-used-car-salivating transit riders. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    By Blogger talk talk talk, at 11:48 AM  

  • I think the Globe should actually offer a public apology for letting that Wente column into print. It annoys me more every time I think about it. I bike to Oshawa from Toronto for work (see and she can't give up her car for one trip to the gym on a smog day?
    Check the biking toronto blog at

    for a good rebuttal to wente.

    By Blogger Tuco, at 7:52 AM  

  • I appreciate the trouble you've gone to to prick Wente's argument.

    But you know, it's no use: she's the Globe's "Senior Columnist." A google search of her name turns up 130,000 hits (of which your post is no doubt one), all of which helps her in her bid for power at "Canada's Newspaper of Record."

    Ultimately, what will work for her is not ridicule (although to be honest, I doubt she deserves anything more), but analysis of her sloppy writing and her absent journalistic ethics.

    By the way, I picked up on her Peter Gordon quote too, in my blob on Wente: "Margaret Wente: not so provocative after all" (cut and paste into your browser to read it: ).

    In my post I question the way she uses the Gordon quote without attribution: damn near plagiarism, in my book. She implies thereby that she did the work of interviewing Gordon, and also hides the fact that the interview took place in 1998 (by the way, you might want to revisit the interview, which you cite as being conducted in 1988).

    By Anonymous allderblob, at 4:09 PM  

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